Commander's Forum: "Education - Conquer the Unknown!"

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Michael Shepherd
  • 412th Flight Test Squadron
As you may already know, Air Force Materiel Command Commander General Donald Hoffman declared 2011 "Year of the Community College of the Air Force" and challenged all Airmen to further their professional education.

AFMC Command Chief Master Sergeant Eric Jaren has made education one of his top priorities for AFMC enlisted personnel. I had the opportunity to remind my squadron of the high priority of education at a recent commander's call, and judging from the skeptical looks I received, I can imagine what was on my troops' mind. Education? I'm already taking CBTs, studying for SKTs and have OJT, how much more training do you want me to do?!

Training. It's one word that's absolutely essential to Air Force operations, but it's not synonymous with education. I was fortunate to serve on the staff at United States Air Force Test Pilot School, and the "training versus education" debate was a conversation we had often while seeking accreditation of our Masters Degree program for TPS students.

Training is about learning a skill so well that it is internalized and can be recalled without hesitation. Rote memorization, adherence to rules and muscle memory are its hallmarks.

Training, not education, is required to fly or repair an airplane. In contrast to training, what education provides us is a framework for problem solving for cases where there is no training program. We had a poignant example of the difference between training and education one day when one of our student crews faced a precarious situation.

A supersonic T-38 with a student pilot in the front seat and a student flight test engineer in the back were busy flying over Edwards conducting their required flight maneuvers. All of sudden the controls in front went slack - "Your jet," said the pilot to his surprised back seater who managed to keep the wings level. After some discussion and gingerly feeling out of the jet, the pilot found he could roll left, but not to his right. At that point training kicked in - when faced with an uncontrollable jet the book answer is to fly in the direction of an uninhabited area and prepare to eject. Landing from the rear cockpit for the brave but admittedly neophyte engineer would be an even riskier option!

Just at that moment our chief instructor pilot arrived on the scene in his own T-38. He truly is the consummate student of aerodynamics, and spends every day studying about the latest flight test theories or developing his own. Looking over the situation he saw it only as a problem to be solved--certainly he would not accept his students would have to face the hazards of an ejection. Instead of ordering a bail out, he radioed the pilot.

"Does your trim work?"


"Add right roll trim so the airplane wants to roll right. Then by varying your working left roll control you should be able to maintain wings level."

"It's working!"

The crew was able to recover uneventfully. It wasn't in any training course or flight manual, but our highly qualified instructor saved a crew who was minutes away from ejection. Test Pilot School is about building a frame of reference to solve problems when faced with the unknown - it's about education.

Training prepares for the known. Education prepares for the unknown!

I received my undergraduate college education in the 80s. While the decade is now best known for hair bands and spandex, for those of us in the military our main discussions were the threat posed by the "Evil Empire" and hoards of enemy tanks and jets flowing across Europe. If our conventional defenses failed, there was Mutually Assured Destruction for nuclear deterrence. Few, and certainly not me, foresaw a world with fanatical terrorism, concurrent wars in three far-flung areas of the globe and networked computer security attacks and breaches. Even if the scenarios we studied are dated, I'd have to admit my education prepared me well with analytic tools and critical thinking skills adaptable to the problems we face today.

You're already using your education. When was the last time a supervisor or co-worker asked you to do something, but couldn't show or tell you exactly how to do it? Education is the well you draw upon when the answer isn't immediately clear. It's not about memorizing facts and trivia - it's about learning to be self-sufficient and confident in your own problem-solving ability. Education transcends all facets of our profession. Unlike training, it is completely portable from job to job. Education is more important than ever as we face challenges of three wars, declining budgets and personnel cuts. We live in a time when innovation and ingenuity will be in highest demand, two assets cultivated by furthering your education.

So consider taking a moment to see where you are in regards to your professional education. Maybe it is time to take advantage of the opportunities the military provides us to further your studies. You've trained for your job, and you're highly proficient. Take the next step. It's not about square filling. It's about preparing knowledgeable, self-confident Airmen to conquer the unknown!